Five things I learned from talking with high school students about the right to housing
Published on 27/04/2018
Late last year, as I listened to federal politicians and policy makers talk about the National Housing Strategy and the right to housing, I wondered how children and youth would understand this idea. How would they react?
While the right to housing is outlined in many international agreements (such as the Universal Declaration of Human Rights), it is still not necessarily a given in a Canadian context. Would young people think it surprising that we didn’t already assume that people in this country should be housed? And what does a house mean to kids? The Convention on the Rights of the Child alludes to housing as necessary for children (Articles 16 and 27), but I was curious as to whether young people would connect to the idea that housing is a human right.
With these questions in mind, I participated in a number of different classroom events this school year, talking to approximately 700 high school students in the Greater Toronto Area about human rights and housing. The schools ranged from large public high schools to all-girls Catholic schools, and the student group sizes ranged from 3-50. One of the projects was with the Youth and Philanthropy Initiative, with whom we partnered in four schools in the GTA in its innovative program connecting students to community involvement and activism. I also taught a mini-course at Ursula Franklin Academy, a social justice-specialized high school in the TDSB. Finally, I attended and led workshops on the right to housing at two high school conferences.
What young people think about human rights and the right to housing
- Kids know a lot about fairness, but not always very much about rights. During my time in the classroom, I was always amazed at how much students connected to the idea of what’s fair and what’s not. Kids think a lot about what’s fair, often in relation to what they can do versus what adults can do. Many talked about things being unfair, like moving when they didn’t want to, or not being allowed to join a certain sports team. When I asked them if they had rights, however, they weren’t as sure. For instance, on a written evaluation of a four-week session on human rights, one student wrote that she wanted to know more about human rights because she didn’t know that kids like her even had rights. Teaching human rights does occur in public school curriculums, but many young people still do not know that they have rights.
- Young people understand that a house is more than simply a roof over one’s head. One of the activities that participants completed involved drawing a home. The students explored what it means to live in a home, who their home includes, what’s crucial in a home, and what makes a home different than a house. They insightfully illustrated that a person’s home should include loved ones; there should be a place for faith/spirituality if needed; there should be adequate food and other basic amenities; there should be access to transportation; and there should be privacy. These essentials are similar to what housing advocates call for when they talk about what a right to housing should look like.
- Young people see homelessness in their communities. When I asked students about what social issues mattered in Toronto, one of the first things they almost always said was homelessness. As housing advocates have pointed out, people experiencing homelessness are often treated as the other. However, for kids, individuals who are living on the street are not invisible; they have dignity. Many of them insightfully discussed the lack of shelter beds, how the cold weather creates strain on individuals experiencing homelessness, and how they didn’t understand why homelessness is a social issue that is so challenging to solve.
- Kids want a chance to participate in conversations about the world around them. When we talked about children having the right to protection, provision, and participation, many youth instinctively felt like they had the first two kinds of rights, but were less sure about the third. Many of them talked about not being able to have a voice in matters that affect them. Some kids were interested in talking about the upcoming provincial election, but most had no idea it was happening. However, students admitted that if the voting age was lowered to 16, they would be more likely to tune in. Some countries (like Scotland and Wales) allow youth voting — this is a simple albeit important first step for political and civil rights for youth. Social and economic rights are also central for young people to realize their full potential, particularly for children who are more likely to experience poverty, including Indigenous youth, racialized youth, children in lone parent families, young people who identify as LGBTQ, and immigrant and refugee youth.
- Kids have good (and different!) ideas for solutions. A common theme amongst students was — perhaps not surprisingly — education. Many of them felt like we could “solve” issues like homelessness if people just knew more about the fact that everyone should have the right to housing. There was quite a bit of agreement that children in elementary school should learn more about rights, and the students discussed games and activities that kids would like, especially ones that involved moving, talking and acting, such as the material developed by Equitas for Play It Fair. Others were drawn to technology as a potential solution. One group loved the idea that the City of Toronto had developed the Homeless Help app that would allow social service agencies to connect those experiencing homelessness with the right services. Some students wondered if an app like this could be expanded in such a way that there could be long-term supports for individuals all connected through some kind of app (as long as it also protected privacy). They also thought that an app like Legal Swipe, which was developed for people experiencing carding, would be useful if it worked for social and economic rights as well as political and civil rights.
Engaging with young people
Young people are hungry for rights — they want to know more about the world around them, and about what they can do to make it a fairer, more just place. As I reflect on the past nine months, I realize that I was asking some of the wrong questions. Students intuitively understood that housing was a human right; the challenge instead was answering questions about why it is difficult for so many people to realize their rights.
I hope the young people I spoke to will keep a close eye on the national consultation on a human rights-based approach to housing that is underway until June 1. The proposals contained in the National Housing Strategy and the government’s discussion paper, as well as the process of consultation, all offer exciting avenues for students to understand, examine, and debate the key elements of a rights-based approach.
In the meantime, I hope teachers and schools will continue to engage young people on questions of human rights and citizenship. Building a culture of rights will require these ongoing conversations with young people on how to make rights meaningful in their daily lives.